FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced 17

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Tech­nol­ogy al­ways seems to be about the new­est thing, the lat­est and great­est. But what fu­els those new ven­tures and ideas are prod­ucts that long ago proved their value and con­tinue to be strong-a prod­uct like FileMaker. Long-time prod­ucts aren’t glam­orous, and a procla­ma­tion that ‘FileMaker gets even bet­ter’ isn’t a grab­ber, and that’s too bad, be­cause the lat­est ver­sion, FileMaker 17, is the best ver­sion of a great prod­uct line.

New fea­tures

FileMaker 17 ties up loose ends, fills in small gaps, and fixes lit­tle prob­lems left over from pre­vi­ous ver­sions. Lay­out ob­ject group­ing was in­tro­duced a cou­ple of ver­sions ago, but now de­vel­op­ers can se­lect and move or re­for­mat in­di­vid­ual lay­out ob­jects in a group without hav­ing to un­group them first. Two os­ten­si­bly tiny changes greatly en­rich the power of FileMaker’s script­ing lan­guage: de­vel­op­ers can now cap­ture di­a­log in­put di­rectly into vari­ables (an­other rea­son we hardly need global fields any more) and scripts can be called by name in a vari­able (which makes generic cod­ing eas­ier). The Send Mail process now sup­ports send­ing mul­ti­ple at­tach­ments. FileMaker Server has been fur­ther op­ti­mized to be even more re­spon­sive, es­pe­cially the data­base is ac­cessed in a web browser or af­ter a dis­con­nect. It’s al­ways eas­ier for soft­ware com­pa­nies to add new bells and whis­tles but ku­dos to its de­vel­op­ers for these crit­i­cally im­por­tant fixes and im­prove­ments.

For de­vel­op­ers

The best fea­ture in FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced 17 may be the new por­tal based on the cur­rent table oc­cur­rence’s found set. FileMaker’s doc­u­men­ta­tion calls this “por­tals for master-de­tail lay­outs”, but that’s sell­ing this fea­ture short. A master-de­tail lay­out is a sin­gle lay­out that shows a list of found records (the ‘master’) and at the same time a de­tail view for one se­lected record. Your email app can prob­a­bly do this.

Master-de­tail is a nice in­ter­face strategy: it al­lows you to keep record de­tails clearly in con­text. But the new found-set por­tal is way more use­ful than that and does not have to be used for master + de­tail lay­outs. It can be used sim­ply as an al­ter­na­tive to FileMaker’s na­tive list view, with the advantage that you can now con­trol how far the list ex­tends to the left and right sides of a lay­out. That in turn means you can now eas­ily build lay­outs that have ac­tion but­tons on the left or right side of the dis­play area, as is so of­ten the case in web ap­pli­ca­tions. Ad­vanced de­vel­op­ers have long been able to achieve this UI ef­fect, but it in­volved

work. The new found-set por­tal has been bril­liantly im­ple­mented so that ev­ery­thing just works.

My other favourite im­prove­ment in FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced 17 is the way in­spec­tors and tool pal­ettes are docked on the sides of the win­dow. It makes work­ing in lay­out mode much eas­ier.

For server ad­min­is­tra­tors

There are a few high­lights in FileMaker Server 17, too. The Server Ad­min Con­sole has a wel­comed makeover. The FileMaker REST Data API, which ap­peared in a beta ver­sion a year ago, has been con­sid­er­ably re­vised and is now out of beta. (If you’re a de­vel­oper who used the Data API beta, you will need to re­view your code.) This al­lows other sys­tems like, for ex­am­ple, web pages, to read data from and write to a FileMaker back­end data­base. Time will tell whether this is a game-changer or a niche-use ca­pa­bil­ity; it will cer­tainly mat­ter to people who have a FileMaker na­tive app whose data needs to be shared on an oc­ca­sional ba­sis with a web­site. Ei­ther way this is a for­ward-look­ing change.

There is also a new Ad­min API, which will be use­ful to any­body run­ning one or more servers. Like FileMaker’s long-stand­ing sup­port for ODBC/JDBC and SQL data ex­change, the new APIs al­low the plat­form to com­mu­ni­cate with the big world out­side FileMaker, but the APIs are much more pow­er­ful. It’s these two new APIs that take FileMaker be­yond plat­form sta­tus into ecosys­tem or frame­work ter­ri­tory.

If you work of­fline and need to update dur­ing off hours, you’ll be es­pe­cially grate­ful for the very pow­er­ful new Data Mi­gra­tion tool. This tool is avail­able only through the com­mand-line in­ter­face (CLI), but it’s worth the trou­ble. Mov­ing gi­ga­bytes of data from the old copy of a data­base into a clone of the lat­est ver­sion could take many hours in the past; now the same job can be done in min­utes or even sec­onds.

FileMaker Go up­dates

Last but not least, FileMaker Go for iOS gets its share of en­hance­ments. Sup­port for paired key­boards has im­proved and there is now dataen­try au­to­com­plete in mo­bile data­bases. FileMaker Go 17 can also ac­cess a wider range of your

iPhone’s sen­sors. For ex­am­ple, when I weigh my­self at the end of the day, my lit­tle weight-track­ing data­base can now au­to­mat­i­cally record how many steps I took dur­ing the day, which means that if one num­ber isn’t what I was hop­ing for, I can now blame the other num­ber.

Per­haps most in­ter­est­ing is the in­tro­duc­tion of lo­cal no­ti­fi­ca­tions for iOS. FileMaker Go 17 can (fi­nally) send a no­ti­fi­ca­tion to your iPhone screen, even if it’s not run­ning. If you use no­ti­fi­ca­tions in con­junc­tion with FileMaker’s sup­port for de­tect­ing and re­spond­ing to iBea­cons, well, this might be a very valu­able new ca­pa­bil­ity. Your phone can now beep at you and dis­play a pre­de­fined mes­sage as you get near a par­tic­u­lar bea­con, even if you didn’t have a data­base open in FileMaker Go.

But no­ti­fi­ca­tions are lim­ited to the par­tic­u­lar user’s par­tic­u­lar iOS de­vice. FileMaker won’t let you set up a no­ti­fi­ca­tion on a com­puter (‘Doc­tor’s ap­point­ment in one hour’) and have it trig­ger at the right time on your iPhone, the way you can with iOS Re­minders or Cal­en­dar events. For­tu­nately, FileMaker does sup­port Ap­pleScript on your Mac, so I use that to set up push no­ti­fi­ca­tions. But the no­ti­fi­ca­tions end up com­ing from Re­minders, not FileMaker Go.

FileMaker 17 for novices

In ad­di­tion to im­prove­ments in the ready-made sam­ple and starter apps, FileMaker helps begin­ners with more tech­ni­cal prob­lems. FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced 17 now cre­ates a hand­ful of de­fault

fields in every new table, such as a field named Pri­ma­ryKey (with a UUID unique value auto en­tered) and fields to track record cre­ation and mod­i­fi­ca­tion in­for­ma­tion.

Per­haps more use­fully, FileMaker 17 offers ‘add-on’ ta­bles. If the novice de­vel­oper is work­ing in an app that tracks people and wants to add ad­dresses in a re­lated table (in­stead of hav­ing to de­fine a Con­tacts table and de­fine fields in it) and then cre­ate the re­la­tion­ship be­tween People and Con­tacts, FileMaker 17 will ba­si­cally do it for you and place an Ad­dresses por­tal on a lay­out, at no ex­tra charge. These sound like nice ideas, in the­ory. But in prac­tice, I’m scep­ti­cal.

The au­to­matic cre­ation of a Pri­ma­ryKey and four other fields thrusts upon the novice de­vel­oper

an ap­proach to field nam­ing and pri­mary key gen­er­a­tion that, while not un­com­mon, is far from be­ing the ‘stan­dard’. This should have been an op­tion that gets turned off when the Ad­vanced fea­tures in FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced get turned on. As it is, for many ad­vanced de­vel­op­ers, this change is go­ing to be an an­noy­ance rather than a help. It’s pos­si­ble to edit the XML file on which these de­fault fields are based but the file is hid­den and this can be risky.

As for the add-on ta­bles, in my ex­per­i­ments with them, they were un­pre­dictable and I fear they may con­fuse novice users more than they help. For ex­am­ple, I opened the Meet­ings file, cre­ated a new tab in a tab-con­trol ob­ject and then added a por­tal. I wanted to be able to link People to Meet­ings, so I se­lected ‘add-on table’ and then People. What FileMaker did, how­ever, was rather more so­phis­ti­cated than I ex­pected. It cre­ated two new ta­bles: People and As­sign­ments. The lat­ter table is a ‘join’ table that makes sense if you’re rea­son­ably knowl­edge­able about re­la­tional de­sign and rec­og­nize that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween meet­ings and at­ten­dees is al­most cer­tainly a many-to-many re­la­tion­ship. But I sus­pect that many begin­ners – the people that add-on ta­bles are sup­posed to help – will open the Table Oc­cur­rence Graph, see ‘As­sign­ments’ and think, “Huh?” The other problem here is that the ta­bles are added di­rectly to the Meet­ings table us­ing key fields named ‘LeftFor­eignKey’ and ‘RightFor­eignKey’. This is sup­posed to help begin­ners?

While it may look as if FileMaker has of­fered begin­ners wa­ter wings, in fact, it has thrown them into the deep end of the pool. Sim­ply at­tach­ing new ta­bles to the ex­ist­ing ta­bles works okay if the data­base doesn’t get any more com­pli­cated. But the ul­ti­mate re­sult is that the user is pre­vented from learn­ing about cru­cially im­por­tant ba­sics like the im­por­tance of con­text, the an­chor-buoy ap­proach to re­la­tional de­sign in FileMaker, and other things.

FileMaker has evolved into a very com­plex plat­form. When I got started with FileMaker a long time ago, it was a bit like fly­ing on a clear day by vis­ual flight rules; now it’s more like fly­ing a jet in the fog with in­stru­ments. Yet its de­vel­op­ers keep try­ing to sug­gest that de­vel­op­ing with FileMaker can be as easy as rid­ing a bike. It’s not. If you’re not a pro­fes­sional de­vel­oper and want to solve a basic data man­age­ment chal­lenge for your busi­ness or re­search, FileMaker is not and for some time has not been the most ob­vi­ous choice. Al­ter­na­tives like Airtable, Knack, or Cas­pio are less pow­er­ful than FileMaker, but pow­er­ful enough for a va­ri­ety of prob­lems, eas­ier to use and per­haps much cheaper and each of these has some ad­van­tages that FileMaker still can’t match. (I use Airtable partly be­cause I can edit an Airtable base’s struc­ture on my iPhone, some­thing I can’t do in FileMaker Go.)

What sets FileMaker apart is its ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to cre­ate rich user in­ter­faces to manage fairly com­plex data sets. But tak­ing advantage of that as­pect of FileMaker is not easy and hasn’t been for a long time.

For end users

The largest group of folks af­fected by a new ver­sion of FileMaker are, of course, end users. You may not even know that you’re us­ing FileMaker. But with FileMaker 17, ready or not, you are get­ting a more ad­vanced prod­uct, in two senses.

For quite a while now there have been two ver­sions of the FileMaker desk­top client: the stan­dard ver­sion called FileMaker Pro (the com­pany’s flag­ship prod­uct) and a ver­sion for de­vel­op­ers called FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced. Pro Ad­vanced has al­ways been iden­ti­cal to stan­dard Pro, ex­cept that Ad­vanced in­cluded a de­bug­ger and a hand­ful of other util­i­ties that make the lives of de­vel­op­ers much eas­ier. The big­gest news with the re­lease of the FileMaker 17 line is stan­dard FileMaker Pro no longer ex­ists. Now there’s just FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced.

Have you ever cre­ated a table, de­fined fields, de­signed a lay­out or writ­ten even a simple script in FileMaker Pro? Well, now you will be us­ing FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced to do the same thing. Its de­vel­op­ers seem to know that the Ad­vanced fea­tures are go­ing to be overkill for most users, be­cause FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced comes with the ad­vanced fea­tures dis­abled by de­fault. But you get them whether you need them or not.

Or are you one of the silent ma­jor­ity that use a FileMaker data­base but never de­fine a field or edit a lay­out? If you’re ac­cess­ing your cus­tom app on your iOS de­vice, you can use FileMaker Go. Or if your de­vel­oper per­mits this, you might be able to ac­cess

the app in your web browser. Other­wise, you’re go­ing to be us­ing FileMaker Pro Ad­vanced even though you hardly qual­ify as a FileMaker Ama­teur.

What’s not to like?

I men­tioned above that FileMaker’s mo­bile client, FileMaker Go, has some wel­come en­hance­ments in 17. But I have to men­tion that it’s still the case that Go works only on iOS de­vices. An­droid user? No Go for you. When you con­sider that FileMaker Inc. is a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Ap­ple, this is a lit­tle eas­ier to un­der­stand, al­though the same thing was true back in the 1990s when FileMaker added sup­port for Mi­crosoft Win­dows.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve. UK-based LiveCode is about to re­lease a prod­uct that will make it pos­si­ble to de­ploy FileMaker apps on An­droid de­vices. I just saw a full demo of the prod­uct (which is still in beta but should be re­leased by late 2018) and it is im­pres­sive. But it adds a lit­tle to the cost per user and in my opin­ion this is some­thing that FileMaker de­vel­op­ers re­ally shouldn’t need to use add-ons to do. If your de­vel­op­ment plans don’t focus on mo­bile de­ploy­ment – or a so­lu­tion’s po­ten­tial mo­bile user base con­sists en­tirely of iPhone users – FileMaker is a fan­tas­tic plat­form. But if I were just start­ing to de­velop mo­bile apps these days and I didn’t want to ig­nore the An­droid mar­ket (which of course is huge), I’d be in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­ter­na­tives.

The power cen­tre of the FileMaker plat­form, FileMaker Server, in ad­di­tion to a re­vised GUI, has

some sig­nif­i­cant en­hance­ments (the of­fi­cial re­lease of the Data API and the new Ad­min API, plus the Data Mi­gra­tion Tool). Un­for­tu­nately, the Server UI is now a bit of a three-headed mon­ster. The server log used to be ac­ces­si­ble through the Ad­min Con­sole’s GUI but now is ac­ces­si­ble only through the Ad­min API. Other fea­tures re­quire the com­mand-line in­ter­face. Per­haps it will all reap­pear in the GUI even­tu­ally, but for now, server ad­min users will need to know not just what Server can do, but where to look for each fea­ture. No doubt worth the trou­ble in the long run, but grow­ing pains are still pains.

Price

There are many ways to de­ploy a shared FileMaker app, in­clud­ing through FileMaker Cloud (on AWS) or on your own LAN/WAN. There are also many ways to ac­cess a FileMaker app: on a desk­top com­puter, or a mo­bile de­vice, or in a web browser.

FileMaker li­cens­ing is cor­re­spond­ingly com­pli­cated. It’s still pos­si­ble to buy per­pet­ual li­censes for FileMaker prod­ucts, but for most in­stal­la­tions, an­nual li­cens­ing will be the way to go, and if you choose that route, no mat­ter how your app is de­ployed

or ac­cessed, the bot­tom line cost will come to £8 to £12 per user per month. Which isn’t bad, con­sid­er­ing what the FileMaker plat­form is ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing.

Mac­world’s buy­ing ad­vice

Never used FileMaker? If you are just look­ing for an easy way to keep track of job ap­pli­cants, plan a fundrais­ing gala, or manage a gallery, there are eas­ier, cheaper options avail­able than FileMaker. On the other hand, if you want to go be­yond mak­ing lists to build­ing pow­er­ful apps with so­phis­ti­cated, cus­tom-de­signed user in­ter­faces and a data­base back end, do your­self a favour and look at FileMaker. And, of course, if you are a de­vel­oper al­ready work­ing with FileMaker, ver­sion 17 is a no-brainer, worth the up­grade for found-set por­tals and the docked lay­out-mode pan­els alone. Wil­liam Porter

It’s a lot eas­ier to work in lay­out mode in FileMaker 17

FileMaker 17’s server UI

Add-on ta­bles are new to FileMaker 17

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